Category: Football

Football players who rush penalty kicks are less likely to score

Taking a penalty in an international football competition must be one of the most tense moments an athlete can face. Even though the odds are stacked against the goal-keeper, the world’s best attacking stars often under-perform. In psychological jargon – they choke.

According to a new analysis of all the penalty shoot-outs held in previous World Cups, European Championships and the UEFA Champions League, issues of timing appear to be crucial to the success or not of a penalty kick. Sports psychologist Geir Jordet and his colleagues have found that, on average, the less time a player takes to respond to the referee’s whistle before running towards the ball to take the penalty, the more likely they are to fail to score.

The researchers say the finding is consistent with the idea that choking is a form of “self-regulatory breakdown”. In other words, an intense threat to our reputation can cause so much distress that we do whatever we can to end the situation as quickly as possible, even if taking this action is harmful to our performance.

A snap-shot of the results reveals that players who took less than 200ms to respond to the ref’s whistle scored, on average, just under 57 per cent of the time. By contrast, players who took more than a second to respond, tended to hit the back of the net just over 80 per cent of the time, on average.

It was a similar story for placement of the ball on the penalty spot, with the players who spent longer placing the ball also tending to be more likely to score, although this trend didn’t reach statistical significance.

The researchers also looked at aspects of timing imposed by the referee. In this case, the pattern of results went in the other direction. For example, players were less likely to score if the penalty was delayed by the referee instructing them to reposition the ball. So whereas a player rushing is detrimental to performance, a referee slowing down the situation also seems to be harmful. This certainly chimes with Steven Gerrard’s account in his autobiography of his penalty miss at the 2006 World Cup: “I was ready. Elizondo [the referee] wasn’t. Blow the whistle! F***ing get a move on, ref! … Those extra couple of seconds … definitely put me off”.

The researchers said their findings should be treated with caution given that some of the sample sizes for some of the conditions were small, and given that this was a retrospective analysis and interpretation of past events, rather than a controlled experiment. However, they concluded that: “short self-imposed times and long externally imposed waiting times accompany low performance” and that referees [should] therefore “make sure that they offer equal temporal conditions for all shooters, by giving the ready signal at the same points in time for everyone”.

ResearchBlogging.orgJordet, G., Hartman, E., & Sigmundstad, E. (2009). Temporal links to performing under pressure in international soccer penalty shootouts Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10 (6), 621-627 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2009.03.004

How to practise penalty shoot-outs

Footballers should practise taking penalty kicks in front of as large an audience as possible and the results should be published, so as to help recreate the pressure of a real tournament. That’s according to researchers who say the effect of stress is even more important than skill or experience in determining whether a penalty-taker hits the back of the net.

Penalty shoot-outs are often used to decide tournament games that have ended in a draw. Five players from each team take one kick each. If the score remains level after this, one player from each team takes a kick until one side is a goal ahead from the same number of kicks.

Some commentators have declared penalties to be a lottery, but the contrasting track records of penalty success between countries tells a different story – for example, England have lost four of their five penalty shoot-outs at major tournaments, whereas Germany have won five out of six.

Geir Jordet and colleagues at the Centre for Human Movement Sciences in Groningen analysed all 409 spot kicks taken in the World Cup, European Championships and Copa America between 1976 and 2004. They found a higher penalty success rate at the less important European and Copa America tournaments (85 and 82 per cent, respectively) relative to the World Cup (71 per cent), suggesting the pressure of the event was affecting penalty-takers’ performance. Moreover, success was greater for kicks taken earlier in a shoot-out, when the pressure is lower because each kick is not in itself decisive.

There was also evidence that skill plays a role, because forward players, who have more goal-scoring experience, tended to be more successful at penalties than defensive players.

“Psychological variables showed a stronger relationship to [penalty] outcome than any of the other variables” the researchers concluded. “Knowledge about psychology should be used to prepare teams for these contests”, they said.

Jordet, G., Hartman, E., Visscher, C. & Lemmink, K.A.P.M. (2007). Kicks from the penalty mark in soccer: The roles of stress, skill, and fatigue for kick outcomes. Journal of Sports Sciences, 25, 121-129.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to related research.

Looking at Wayne Rooney impairs the control you have over your own feet

No wonder he’s so adept at getting past defenders. According to Patric Bach and Steven Tipper of Bangor University, the mere sight of Wayne Rooney inhibits the control you have over your feet. Apparently, looking at Rooney automatically triggers football-related activity in the movement control parts of your brain, leading to the paradoxical effect of impairing your own foot control. By contrast, Bach and Tipper found the sight of the British tennis player Tim Henman impairs your hand control, but not your foot control.

Forty student participants were shown photos of the footballers Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen and the tennis players Tim Henman and Greg Rusedksi. None of the photos were action shots, but half showed the sportsmen in a sporting context whereas the other half showed them off-pitch, or off-court.

The participants’ task was to identify as quickly and accurately as possible the sportsman currently displayed, using either a keyboard key or a footpad. For example, during one trial the participants were required to press the footpad if the computer screen showed Rooney but to press the spacebar with their finger if the photo was of Henman. On another trial the means of response was reversed so that the footpad was used for identifying Tim Henman, with the keyboard used for Rooney. Hundreds of such trials were performed.

The crucial finding is that on average the participants were slower (by about 20ms) and less accurate at identifying the footballers when using their foot compared with their finger. By contrast, they were slower and less accurate at identifying the tennis players with their finger than with their foot. These effects were actually slightly greater when the sportsmen were shown out of a sporting context.

“Perceiving a highly skilled athlete inhibited similar motor behaviour in the observer”, the researchers said. The finding suggests that “people use their own action system to represent knowledge about other persons”. In this case, the participants represented the motor skills of Rooney and the others, even though they weren’t observed in action.

The findings are consistent with earlier research showing the sight of Albert Einstein impaired people’s subsequent performance on an IQ test.

Bach, P. & Tipper, S.P. (2006). Bend it like Beckham: Embodying the motor skills of famous athletes. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 59, 2033-2039.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Overestimating the impact of future events

If I asked you to predict how you’d react emotionally to a given situation – say your train to work was cancelled, or if your football team were to win next Saturday – then research suggests you would overestimate its emotional effect on you. That’s because in using our past experiences as a guide to how we’ll feel in future situations, it is our most extreme experiences that most readily come to mind, thus biasing our future expectations.

Carey Morewedge and colleagues approached commuters at a railway station. They asked some to recall their worst experience of missing a train, and to rate how they’d felt at the time. They asked other passengers to recall any experience they’d had of missing a train and to rate how they felt. Morewedge’s team found those passengers asked to recall any experience, remembered an episode they rated just as unpleasant as those specifically asked to recall their worst experience (other passengers asked to recall a mixture of experiences were able to do so). This pattern was replicated with sports fans approached at a football game and a baseball game: those asked to recall any occasion their team won, remembered wins that were just as amazing and enjoyable as those asked to recall the best win ever.

“This finding could help people anticipate events more realistically…”

However, when these same participants were next asked to imagine how they’d feel if they were to miss a train now, or if their team were to win that day, it was only those participants asked to recall any previous experience who then made extreme predictions for how bad or good they’d feel (the usual bias shown by previous research). In contrast, the participants asked to deliberately recall their worst or best previous experience had more modest expectations. Their awareness that they had recalled an extreme example seemed to help them make more moderate forecasts for the future.

This finding could help people anticipate events more realistically. The authors pointed to the example of someone dreading a visit to the dentist because of a previous bad experience. In a case like that, “When biased recollection is unavoidable”, the authors advised, “it may make sense to explicitly promote it, thereby alerting people to the unrepresentativeness of the events they are remembering”.

Morewedge, C.K., Gilbert, D.T. & Wilson, T.D. (2005). The least likely of times. How remembering the past biases forecasts of the future. Psychological Science, 16, 626-630.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.